Slatkin, Power of Thetis Now Available Online

From the official announcement of the Center for Hellenic Studies:

The Center for Hellenic Studies is pleased to announce that the online edition of Laura Slatkin’s The Power of Thetis and Selected Essays is now available on the CHS website ( This influential and widely admired book explores the superficially minor role of Thetis in the Iliad. Slatkin uncovers alternative traditions about the power of Thetis and shows how an awareness of those myths brings a far greater understanding of Thetis’s place in the thematic structure of the Iliad. This second edition also includes six additional essays, which cover a broad range of topics in the study of the Greek Epic. […]

On the ‘Plausibility’ of the Iliad and Social Networks?

This is a bit of a strange one … my spiders started dragging back versions of this story the other day and it was interesting how different it was being spun depending on which journalist was covering it. The starting point is an article by Pádraig Mac Carron and Ralph Kenna entitled Universal properties of mythological networks (where it can be downloaded for free, after some registration). It’s in a journal called Europhysics Letters and is based on a pile of statistical calculations which are clearly beyond my understanding (and yes, I have read the paper three or four times, maybe even five). However, I can understand argument, which clearly isn’t reflected in the newspaper coverage.  As such, it’s worth beginning with the abstract:

As in statistical physics, the concept of universality plays an important, albeit qualitative, role in the field of comparative mythology. Here we apply statistical mechanical tools to analyse the networks underlying three iconic mythological narratives witha view to identifying common and distinguishing quantitative features. Of the three narratives, an Anglo-Saxon and a Greek text are mostly believed by antiquarians to be partly historically based while the third, an Irish epic, is often considered to be fictional. Here we use network analysis in an attempt to discriminate real from imaginary social networks and place mythological narratives on the spectrum between them. This suggests that the perceived artificiality of the Irish narrative can be traced back to anomalous features associated with six characters. Speculating that these are amalgams of several entities or proxies, renders the plausibility of the Irish text comparable to the others from a network-theoretic point of view.

… which is to say, their purpose is to apply statistical models from social networks to assorted ancient epics, with a view to proving the plausibility specifically of the Irish one. Reading the paper itself actually confirms that they’re trying to lend plausibility to the Irish thing, but most of the coverage that has been presented as of this writing seems to be taking this study in other directions. A comparison of the ‘headlines’ is instructive:

… which must be boggling the minds of the authors of the study, given that not one headline mentions the Irish epic (T’ain)!

That said, we should examine the study … the Scientific Blogging thing mentioned above explains the methodology most clearly:

Pesky humanities types are always butting into science and a new article in EPL (Europhysics Letters) turns the tables. Pádraig Mac Carron and Ralph Kenna from Coventry University performed detailed text analyses of the Iliad, Beowulf and the Táin Bó Cuailnge and found that the interactions between the characters in all three myths were consistent with those seen in real-life social networks. Taking this further, the researchers compared the myths to four known works of fiction — Les Misérables, Richard III, Fellowship of the Ring, and Harry Potter — and found clear differences.

To arrive at their conclusions, the researchers created a database for each of the three stories and mapped out the characters’ interactions. There were 74 characters identified in Beowulf, 404 in the Táin and 716 in the Iliad. Each character was assigned a number, or degree, based on how popular they were, or how many links they had to other characters. The researchers then measured how these degrees were distributed throughout the whole network.

The types of relationships that existed between the characters were also analyzed using two specific criteria: friendliness and hostility.

Friendly links were made if characters were related, spoke to each other, spoke about one another or it is otherwise clear that they know each other amicably. Hostile links were made if two characters met in a conflict, or when a character clearly displayed animosity against somebody they know.

The three myths were shown to be similar to real-life networks as they had similar degree distributions, were assortative and vulnerable to targeted attack. Assortativity is the tendency of a character of a certain degree to interact with a character of similar popularity; being vulnerable to targeted attack means that if you remove one of the most popular characters, it leads to a breakdown of the whole network – neither of these appears to happen in fiction.

“We can’t really comment so much on particular events. We’re not saying that this or that actually happened, or even that the individual people portrayed in the stories are real; we are saying that the overall society and interactions between characters seem realistic,” said Mac Carron.

The first thing we pesky humanities types have to deal with are all the Shakespeare and Harry Potter refs in the newspapers. As part the study, the researcher have a couple of paragraphs applying their methods to Richard III, Les Miserables, Harry Potter, and the Fellowship of the Ring, as well as the Marvel Universe. The purpose is clearly to have some ‘obvious fiction’ to compare things with. The authors concluded in regards to these:

While these networks display the high clustering coefficient that is common to all social networks, the fact that they are all disassortative and are almost entirely connected is perhaps an indication of their societies’ artificiality. In a sense they are too small world to be real.

And so we can continue to be pesky humanities types and proceed to an excerpt from the authors’ conclusions (p. 5 of the online article):

Of the three myths, the network of characters in the Iliad has properties most similar to those of real social networks.It has a power-law degree distribution(with an exponential cut-off), is small world, assortative, vulnerable to targeted attack and is structurally balanced.This similarity perhaps reflects the archaeological evidence supporting the historicity of some of the events of the Iliad .

There is also archaeological evidence suggesting some of the characters in Beowulf are based on real people, although the events in the story of ten contain elements of fantasy associated with the eponymous protagonist. The network for this society, while small, has some properties similar to real social networks,though like all the fictional narratives it is disassortative. However,removing the main character from the network renders it assortative. Thus, while the entire network is not credible as reflecting a real society, we suggest that an assortative subset has properties akin to real social networks, and this subset has corroborative evidence of historicity.

Currently there is very little evidence for the events and the society in the T´ain. While there is some circumstantial evidence in terms of the landscape [44], its historicity is often questioned [39,40]. Indeed, the social network of the full narrative initially seems similar to that of the Marvel Universe perhaps indicating it is the Iron Age equivalent of a comic book. However, comparing the T´ain’s degree distribution to that of Beowulf reveals a remarkable similarity, except for the top six vertices of the Irish narrative. This suggests the artificiality of the network maybe mainly associated with the corresponding characters. They are similar to the superheroes of the Marvel Universe —too super-human to be realistic, or in terms of the network, they are too well connected.

In other words, the ‘plausibility’ of the Iliad — which has some archaeological ‘confirmation’ to it — is confirmed by the ‘social network statistics’, which is actually interesting, but not the point of the study — indeed, given that the authors indicate that they are aware of the possible historicity of some of the events in the Iliad, there would be a dangerous circularity lurking in that argument. Beowulf, with its rather more tenuous archaeological ‘confirmation’, is similarly tenuous on the social network side of things. Finally, the T’ain, with no archaeological support, is also on par with the total fictional world of a comic book. That last thing is the point of the article, despite what the papers say. I guess we pesky humanities types are necessary for translation of serious scientific types’ words …

Marathon Iliad Reading at Bowdoin

From Bowdoin:

Members of the 207-year-old Peucinian Society — a literary group and Bowdoin’s oldest student organization — recently read the complete Iliad aloud from the Bowdoin College Museum of Art steps.

In previous years, Peucinian members have read the Odyssey during their annual Homer-a-thon, but this year decided to tackle the longer Iliad. “The record for the Odyssey is six hours,” RJ Dellecese ’14 said, taking a break while fellow member Molly Stevens ’15 read a passage with fiery brio. “But the Iliad is 25 percent longer.”

The heroic Iliad readers — about 11 of them — started their performance last Friday at 10:08 a.m. and recited the final words at 1:29 a.m. Saturday morning: “Such honours Ilion to her hero paid, And peaceful slept the mighty Hector’s shade.” They read through the beautiful sunny day, through some afternoon gusts of wind, through a nearby dance practice, through dinner and dusk and into the chilly hours of night. Why, you might ask? “We do it for erudition,” Dellecese explained. “And to express our love for the classics and philosophy and to share what we consider to be a great story.”

via: A 15-hour, 21-minute Non-Stop Oration of the ‘Iliad’ (Bowdoin)

… the news item also includes this video; sounds like they used Pope’s translation:

This Day in Ancient History: ante diem xvi kalendas quinctilias

Otto Jahn Otto Jahn. Stich von August Weger na...
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ante diem xvi kalendas quinctilias

  • 212 A.D. — martyrdom of Ferreolus and Ferrutio
  • 1716 — Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad is published
  • 1813 — birth of Otto Jahn (archaeologist and philologist)
  • 1937 — birth of Erich Segal (Classicist, known to Classicists for his work on ancient comedy; known to the rest of the world as the author of Love Story)

Sword and Sandal Flicks @ McMaster (and elsewhere)!

McMaster University
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Some ClassCon in Maclean’s (Canada’s News Magazine):

On a recent Tuesday evening, seven members of McMaster University’s classics club gathered in Room 719 of Togo Salmon Hall to watch Disney’s animated movie Hercules. So far this academic year they’ve screened Gladiator, 300 and the 1966 classic A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. When the film ended and the Doritos bags and Coke bottles had been emptied, club president Rebecca Rathbone got the discussion rolling by raising the question of factual accuracy. “If they did what was historically accurate,” she said, “nobody would find any meaning in them today.” “Yeah,” said a student in the back, “And I don’t think Disney could show Hercules killing his wife and kids.” “Twice,” added another.

This group was kind. Movie nights are the bread and butter of classics clubs because that’s when members get “to be obnoxious little classicists,” says Sara Mills, a junior at Harvard and president of their classical club. “It’s very hard for us to watch these movies in silence. It’s like, ‘Oh my goodness, look at that outfit!’ ” And Dale Eadeh, president of NYU’s Classics Club, admits, “We can’t resist! It’s the kind of thing where we’ll make a comment and just apologize right after: ‘I’m sorry for ruining the movie but I have a question.’ ” Questions like: why does Alexander the Great’s mother, played by Angelina Jolie, have a Russian accent in Alexander? Why do the Romans in Gladiator take a catapult into a forest? And why does marble statuary inevitably appear pristinely white?

Classics clubs will soon have a new crop of films to discuss at screenings: Clash of the Titans and Percy Jackson and the Olympian Thieves have already hit theatres, while Xerxes, Zach Snyder’s prequel to 300, and Centurion, a film about Roman soldiers splintered from their army in northern Britain, are in production.

There are rumours of a film sequel to the popular HBO-BBC series Rome, and television has “sword and sandal” epics of its own: the Sam Raimi-produced Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Ben Hur, currently on the CBC. Then there are the books: Lost Books of the Odyssey, David Malouf’s Ransom, which explores the untold story of Priam, king of Troy, and John Banville’s The Infinites, narrated by Hermes. If this isn’t enough to convince you that ancient Greeks and Romans are strong contenders to overthrow vampires for the 2010 cultural seat of supremacy, consider this: a few weeks ago, the National Zoo in Washington tweeted the name of its newly acquired octopus: Octavius.

Classics students can be a hard-core bunch. Once a week, members of Harvard’s club, founded 125 years ago, meet at the same restaurant and only speak in Latin. “We’ve become so familiar,” says club president Mills, “that some of the waiters even know how to say thank you in Latin.” Still, students are thrilled by their discipline’s rising pop status. “The more people know about this stuff,” says Justine McLeod of the University of Ottawa’s classics club, “the less I’m given weird looks when I tell people what I’m studying.” Rathbone agrees: “It’s neat to be able to find the errors but I think a lot of people forget that it’s just a movie. Just get over it.”

That doesn’t mean they have to admit Troy into their pantheon of epics. “I just can’t do it,” says Eadeh. “You know what it was actually? The writing credits—they put Homer for the writer on IMDb! I was like, ‘No, no, no!’ ” Paul Murgatroyd teaches a course called “The Ancient World in Film” at McMaster where he screens Troy, among other modern adaptations. “I show them a couple of scenes,” he says, “and we look at the original in The Iliad and versions in the Aeneid. Essentially I point out how crap Troy is. It really is a travesty.”

Disputes are inevitable. (This is academia after all.) “We have a professor,” says Eadeh, “who absolutely hates 300 and another one, one of the leading Livy scholars in the world, who’ll defend it to the death.” Some even object to objecting to historical inaccuracies. “The ancient sources themselves are often incomplete,” says Steven Green, a professor of classics at the University of Leeds. “Ancient historians often invented speeches and imagined what things would have been like, so they’re engaged in the same sort of creative experiments that the filmmakers are.”

And in the end sword-and-sandal films may be the only exposure young people get to the world of antiquity. “It’s the closest thing the youth of today will have to having a classical education,” says McLeod. “No one’s going to read The Iliad or The Odyssey anymore, but maybe they’ll watch the movie.”

via Oh my goodness, look at that outfit!| Maclean’s.

… hey … I taught that course at McMaster a couple of times …